Medieval Medicine by James J. Walsh, chapter name INTRODUCTORY


To understand the story of Medieval Medicine, the reader must recall briefly the course of Roman history. Rome, founded some eight centuries before Christ, was at first the home of a group of adventurers who, in the absence of women enough to supply wives for their warriors, went out and captured the maidens of a neighbouring Sabine town. The feud which broke out as a result was brought to an end by the women now become the wives of the Romans, and an alliance was made. Gradually Rome conquered the neighbouring cities, but was ever so much more interested in war and conquest than in the higher life. The Etruscan cities, which came under her domination, now reveal in their ruins art objects of exquisite beauty and the remains of a people of high artistic culture. When Rome conquered Carthage, Carthage was probably the most magnificent city in the world, and Rome was a very commonplace collection of2 houses. Culture did not come to Rome until after her conquest of Greece, when “captive Greece led her captor captive.”

Sir Henry Maine‟s expression that whatever lives and moves in the intellectual life is Greek in origin may not be unexceptionably true, but it represents a generalization of very wide application.


Rome was stimulated in art and architecture and literature by touch with the Greeks, and her own achievements, important though they were, were little better than copies of Greek originals. The Romans themselves acknowledged this very frankly. When in the course of time the barbarian nations from the North and West of Europe came down in large numbers into Italy, and finally gained control of the Roman Empire, they had but very little interest in the Greek sources, and decadence of the intellectual life was inevitable. This was particularly true as regards scientific subjects, and above all for medicine; for the Romans had always depended on Greek physicians, and Galen in the second century, like Alexander of Tralles in the seventh, represent terms in the series of physicians who reached distinction at Rome.


The key to the history of medicine in the Middle Ages, then, is always the presence of Greek influence. This persisted in the Near East, and consequently serious scientific medicine continued3 to flourish there, at first among the Christians and later among the Arabs. It was not for any special incentive of their own that the Arabs became the intellectual leaders of Europe during the tenth and eleventh centuries, but the fact that their geographical position in Asia Minor close to Greek sources provided them with the opportunity to know the old Greek authors, especially in philosophy and medicine, and therefore to be almost forced to become the channels through which Greek influences were carried into the West once more.


Before the coming of the Arabs, however—that is, before the rise of Mohammedanism— there was an important chapter of medieval medicine which is often not appreciated at its true worth. The contributors to it deserve to be well known, and fortunately for us in the modern time were properly appreciated during the early days of the art of printing, in the Renaissance time, and accordingly their books were printed, and came to be distributed in many copies, which have rendered them readily available in the modern time.

In Asia Minor, where Greek influence persisted as it did not in Italy, we have a series of distinguished contributors to medicine, or rather, medical literature—that is, men whose books represent a valuable compilation and digestion of the important medical writings from before their time, often4 enriched by their own experience. The first of these was Aëtios Amidenus—that is, Aëtios of Amida—born in the town of that name in Mesopotamia on the Upper Tigris (now Diarbekir), who flourished in the sixth century. Aëtios, or in the Latin form Aëtius, wrote a textbook that has often been republished in the modern time, and that shows very clearly how well the physicians of this period faced their medical and surgical problems, how thoroughly equipped they were by faithful study of the old Greek writers, and how successfully they coped with the difficulties of the cases presented to them. He is eminently conservative, a careful observer, who uses all the means at his command and who well deserves the interest that has been manifested in him at many periods during the almost millennium and a half elapsed since his death.


After Aëtius came Alexander of Tralles, from another of these towns of Asia Minor that we would consider insignificant, sometimes termed Trallianus for this reason. He must be reputed one of the great independent thinkers in medicine whose writings have deservedly attracted attention not only in his own time, but long afterwards in the Renaissance period, and with whose works everyone who cares to know anything about the development of medical history must be familiar. One detail of5 his life has always seemed to me to correct a whole series of misapprehensions with regard to the earlier Middle Ages. Alexander was one of five brothers, all of whose names have come down to us through nearly , years because of what they accomplished at the great Capital of the East. The eldest of them was Anthemios, the architect of the great Church of Santa Sophia. A second brother was Methrodoros, a distinguished grammarian and teacher at Constantinople. A third brother was a prominent jurist in the Imperial Courts of the capital; while a fourth brother, Dioscoros, was, like Alexander, a physician of repute, but remained in his birthplace Tralles, and acquired a substantial practice there.


There is sometimes the feeling that at this time in the world‟s history, the end of the sixth and the beginning of the seventh century, men had but little initiative, and above all very little power of achievement in the intellectual order. Anyone who knows Santa Sophia in Constantinople, however, will recognize at once that the architect who conceived and superintended the construction of that great edifice was a genius of a high order, not lacking in initiative, but on the contrary possessed of a wonderful power of original accomplishment. No greater constructive work, considering all the circumstances, has perhaps ever been successfully6 planned and executed. It would scarcely be expected that the brother of the man who conceived and finished Santa Sophia would, if he set out to write a textbook of medicine, make an egregious failure of it. Surely his work would not be all unworthy of his brother‟s reputation, and the family genius should lift him up to important accomplishment. This is literally what we find true with regard to Alexander. After years of travel which led him into Italy, Gaul, Spain, and Africa, he settled down at Rome, and practised medicine successfully until a very old age, and probably lectured there, for some of his books are in the form of lectures.


Fortunately for us, he committed his knowledge and his experience to writing, which has come down to us.


A third of these greater writers on medicine in the early Middle Ages was Paul of Ægina—Æginetus as he is sometimes known. There has been some question as to his date in history, but as he quotes Alexander of Tralles there seems to be no doubt now that his career must be placed in the first half of the seventh century. We shall see more of him, as also of his great contemporaries and predecessors of the early Middle Ages, Aëtios and Alexander of Tralles, in a subsequent chapter. Besides these men who were known for their7 writings, a series of less known Christian physicians were praised by their contemporaries for their knowledge of medicine. Among them are particularly to be noted certain members of an Arabian family with the title Bachtischua, a name which is derived from the Arabic words Bocht Jesu—that is, servant of Jesus—who, having studied among the Greek Christians in the cities of Asia Minor, were called to the Court of Haroun al-Raschid and introduced Greek medicine to the Mohammedans. I have pointed out in my volume “Old-Time Makers of Medicine” that “it was their teaching which aroused Moslem scholars from the apathy that characterized the attitude of the Arabian people towards science at the beginning of Mohammedanism.”


After this preliminary period of early medieval medical development, the next important phase of medicine and surgery in the Middle Ages developed in the southern part of Italy at Salerno. Here came the real awakening from that inattention to intellectual interests which characterized Italy after the invasion of the northern barbarians. The reason for the early Renaissance in this neighbourhood is not far to seek. In the older times Sicily had been a Greek colony, and the southern portion of Italy had been settled by Greeks and came to8 be known as Magna Græcia. The Greek language continued to be spoken in many parts even during the earlier medieval centuries, and Greek never became the utterly unknown tongue it was in Northern Italy. With the turning of attention to education in the later Middle Ages, the Southern Italians were brought almost at once in contact with Greek sources, and the earlier Renaissance began. With this in mind, it is comparatively easy to understand the efflorescence of culture in Southern Italy, and the development of the important University of Salerno and its great accomplishment, particularly in scientific matters, though all this came almost entirely as a consequence of the opportunity for Greek influence to have its effect there.


It is sometimes said that Arabian influence meant much for the development of Salerno, and that it was because the southern part of the Italian peninsula was necessarily rather closely in touch with Arabian culture that an early awakening took place down there. The Mohammedans occupied so many of the islands of the Mediterranean, as well as Spain, that their influence was felt deeply all along its shore, and hence the first university of Europe in modern times came into existence in this part of the world. Montpellier is sometimes, though not so often, said to have had the same9 factor in its early development. Undoubtedly there was some Arabian influence in the foundation of Salerno. The oldest traditions of the University show this rather clearly. This Arabian influence, however, has been greatly exaggerated by some modern historical writers. Led by the thought that Christianity was opposed to culture, and above all to science, they were quite willing to suggest any other influences than Christian as the source of so important a movement in the history of human progress as Salerno proved to be. The main influence at Salerno, however, was Greek, and the proof of this is, as insisted by Gurlt in his “History of Surgery,” that the great surgeons of Salerno do not refer to Arabian sources, but to Greek authors, and their books do not show traces of Arabian influences, but on the contrary have many Græcisms in them.


Salerno represents an especially important chapter in the history of Medieval Medicine. As we shall see, the teachers at the great medical school there set themselves in strenuous opposition to the Arabian tendency to polypharmacy, by which the Oriental mind had seriously hurt medicine, and what is still more to the credit of these Salernitan teachers, they developed surgery far beyond anything that the Arabs had attempted. Indeed, surgery in the later centuries of Arabian influence10 had been distinctly neglected, but enjoyed a great revival at Salerno. Besides, the Salernitan physicians used all the natural methods of cure, air, water, exercise, and diet, very successfully. If any other proof were needed that Arabian influence was not prominent at Salerno, surely it would be found in the fact that women physicians enjoyed so many privileges there. This is so entirely opposed to Mohammedan ways as to be quite convincing as a demonstration of the absence of Arabian influence.


From Salerno, the tradition of medicine and surgery spread to Bologna early in the thirteenth century, and thence to the other universities of Italy and to France. Montpellier represented an independent focus of modern progress in medicine, partly due to close relationship with the Moors in Spain and the Greek influences they carried with them from Asia Minor, but not a little of it consequent upon the remnants of the older Greek culture, still not entirely dead even in the thirteenth century, because Marseilles, not far away, had been a Greek colony originally, and still retained living Greek influence, and wherever Greek got a chance to exercise its stimulant incentive modern scientific medicine began to develop.


France owed most of her development in medicine and surgery at the end of the Middle11 Ages to the stream of influence that flowed out of Italian universities. Such men as Lanfranc, who was an Italian born but exiled; Mondeville, who studied in Italy; and Guy de Chauliac, who has so freely acknowledged his obligation to Italian teachers, were the capital sources of medical and surgical teaching in France in the later Middle Ages.


It is thus easy to see how the two periods of historical import in medicine at the beginning and end of the Middle Ages may be placed in their intimate relation to Greek influences. At the beginning, Greek medicine was not yet dead in Asia Minor, and it influenced the Arabs. When the revival came, it made itself first felt in the portions of Southern Italy and Southern France where Greek influence had been strongest and still persisted. Fortunately for us, the great Renaissance printers and scholars, themselves touched by the Greek spirit of their time, put the books of the writers of these two periods into enduring printed form, and in more recent years many reprints of them have been issued. These volumes make it possible for us to understand just how thoroughly these colleagues of the Middle Ages faced their problems, and solved them with a practical genius that deserves the immortality that their works have been given.


The history of medicine and surgery during the Middle Ages has been greatly obscured by the assumption that at this time scientific medicine and surgery could scarcely have developed because men were lacking in the true spirit of science. The distinction between modern and medieval education is often said to be that the old-time universities sought to increase knowledge by deduction, while the modern universities depend on induction. Inductive science is often said to be the invention of the Renaissance period, and to have had practically no existence during the Middle Ages. The medieval scholars are commonly declared to have preferred to appeal to authority, while modern investigators turn to experience. Respect for authority is often said to have gone so far in the Middle Ages that no one ventured practically to assert anything unless he could find some authority for it. On the other hand, if there was any acknowledged authority, say Aristotle or Galen, men so hesitated to contradict him that they usually followed one another like sheep, quoting their favourite author and swearing by the authority of their chosen master. Indeed, many modern writers have not hesitated to express the greatest possible wonder that the men of the Middle Ages did not think more for themselves, and above all did not trust to their own observation, rather than constantly rest under the shadow of authority.


Above all, it is often asked why there was no nature study in the Middle Ages—that is, why men did not look around them and see the beauties and the wonders of the world and of nature, and becoming interested in them, endeavour to learn as much as possible about them. Anyone who thinks that there was no nature study in the Middle Ages, however, is quite ignorant of the books of the Middle Ages. Dante, for instance, is full of the knowledge of nature. What he knows about the ants, and the bees, and many other insects; about the flowers, and the birds, and the habits of animals; about the phosphorescence at sea and the cloud effects, and nearly everything else in the world of nature around him, adds greatly to the interest of his poems. He uses all these details of information as figures in his “Divine Comedy,” not in order to display his erudition, but to bring home his meaning with striking concreteness by the metaphors which he employs. There is probably no poet in the modern time who knows more about the science of his time than Dante, or uses it to better advantage.


It is sometimes thought that the medieval scholars did not consider that experience and observation were of any value in the search for truth, and that therefore there could have been no development of science. In an article on “Science at the Medieval Universities” I made a series of quotations from the two great scientific scholars of the thirteenth century, Albertus Magnus and Roger Bacon, with regard to the question of the relative value of authority and observation in all that relates to physical science. Stronger expressions in commendation of observation and experiment as the only real sources of knowledge in such matters could scarcely be found in any modern scientist. In Albert‟s tenth book of his “Summa,” in which he catalogues and describes all the trees, plants, and herbs known in his time, he declares: “All that is here set down is the result of our own experience, or has been borrowed from authors whom we know to have written what their personal experience has confirmed; for in these matters experience alone can be of certainty.” In his impressive Latin phrase, experimentum solum certificat in talibus. With regard to the study of nature in general he was quite emphatic. He was a theologian as well as a scientist, yet in his treatise on “The Heavens and the Earth,” he declared that: “In studying nature we have not to inquire how God the Creator may, as He freely wills, use His creatures to work miracles, and thereby show forth His power. We have rather15 to inquire what nature with its immanent causes can naturally bring to pass.”


Roger Bacon, the recent celebration of whose seven hundredth anniversary has made him ever so much better known than before, furnishes a number of quotations on this subject. One of them is so strong that it will serve our purpose completely. In praising the work done by Petrus, one of his disciples whom we have come to know as Peregrinus, Bacon could scarcely say enough in praise of the thoroughly scientific temper, in our fullest sense of the term, of Peregrinus‟s mind. Peregrinus wrote a letter on magnetism, which is really a monograph on the subject, and it is mainly with regard to this that Roger Bacon has words of praise. He says: “I know of only one person who deserves praise for his work in experimental philosophy, for he does not care for the discourses of men and their wordy warfare, but quietly and diligently pursues the works of wisdom. Therefore, what others grope after blindly, as bats in the evening twilight, this man contemplates in their brilliancy, because he is a master of experiment. Hence, he knows all of natural science, whether pertaining to medicine and alchemy, or to matters celestial or terrestrial. He has worked diligently in the smelting of ores, as also in the working of minerals; he is thoroughly acquainted with all sorts16 of arms and implements used in military service and in hunting, besides which he is skilled in agriculture and in the measurement of lands. It is impossible to write a useful or correct treatise in experimental philosophy without mentioning this man‟s name. Moreover, he pursues knowledge for its own sake; for if he wished to obtain royal favour, he could easily find sovereigns who would honour and enrich him.”


Roger Bacon actually wanted the Pope to forbid the study of Aristotle because his works were leading men astray from the true study of science—his authority being looked upon as so great that men did not think for themselves, but accepted his assertions. Smaller men are always prone to act thus at any period in the world‟s history, and we undoubtedly in our time have a very large number who do not think for themselves, but swear on the word of some master or other, and very seldom so adequate a master as Aristotle.


Bacon insisted that the four great grounds of human ignorance are: “First, trust in inadequate authority; second, that force of custom which leads men to accept without properly questioning what has been accepted before their time; third, the placing of confidence in the assertions of the inexperienced; and fourth, the hiding of one‟s own ignorance behind the parade of superficial17 knowledge, so that we are afraid to say, „I do not know.‟” Prof. Henry Morley suggested that: “No part of that ground has yet been cut away from beneath the feet of students, although six centuries have passed. We still make sheepwalks of second, third, and fourth, and fifth hand references to authority; still we are the slaves of habit, still we are found following too frequently the untaught crowd, still we flinch from the righteous and wholesome phrase, „I do not know,‟ and acquiesce actively in the opinion of others that we know what we appear to know.”


It used to be the custom to make little of the medieval scientists because of their reverence for Aristotle. Generations who knew little about Aristotle, especially those of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, were inclined to despise preceding generations who had thought so much of him. We have come to know more about Aristotle in our own time, however, and as a consequence have learned to appreciate better medieval respect for him. Very probably at the present moment there would be almost unanimous agreement of scholars in the opinion that Aristotle‟s was the greatest mind humanity has ever had. This is true not only because of his profound intellectual penetration, but above all because of the comprehensiveness of his intelligence. For18 depth and breadth of mental view on a multiplicity of subjects, Aristotle has never been excelled and has but very few rivals. The admiration of the Middle Ages for him, instead of being derogatory in any way to the judgment of the men of the time, or indicating any lack of critical appreciation, rather furnishes good reasons for high estimation of both these intellectual modes of the medieval mind. Proper appreciation of what is best is a much more difficult task than condemnation of what is less worthy of regard. It is the difference between constructive and destructive criticism. Medieval appreciation of Aristotle, then, constitutes rather a good reason for admiration of them than for depreciation of their critical faculty; and yet they never carried respect and reverence to unthinking worship, much less slavish adoration. Albertus Magnus, for instance, said: “Whoever believes that Aristotle was a God must also believe that he never erred; but if we believe that Aristotle was a man, then doubtless he was liable to err just as we are.” We have a number of direct contradictions of Aristotle from Albert. A well-known one is that with regard to Aristotle‟s assertion that lunar rainbows appeared only twice in fifty years. Albert declared that he himself had seen two in a single year.


Galen, after Aristotle, was the author oftenest19 quoted in the Middle Ages, and most revered. Anyone who wants to understand this medieval reverence needs only to read Galen. There has probably never been a greater clinical observer in all the world than this Greek from Pergamos, whose works were destined to have so much influence for a millennium and a half after his time. How well he deserved this prestige only a careful study of his writings will reveal. It is simply marvellous what he had seen and writes about. Anatomy, physiology, pathological anatomy, diagnosis, therapeutics—all these were magnificently developed under his hands, and he has left a record of accurate and detailed observation. There are many absurdities easily to be seen in his writings now, but no one has yet written on medicine in any large way who has avoided absurdities, nor can anyone hope to, until we know much more of the medical sciences than at present. The therapeutics of any generation is always absurd to the second succeeding generation, it has been said. Those in the modern time who know their Galen best have almost as much admiration for him, in spite of all our advance in the knowledge of medicine, as the medieval people had. No wonder, seeing the depth and breadth of his knowledge, that he was thought so much of, and that men hesitated to contravene anything that he said.


Even in the authorities to which they turned with so much confidence, the medieval physicians are admirable. If man must depend on authority, then he could not have better than they had. As with regard to this, so in all other matters relating to the Middle Ages, the ordinarily accepted notions prove to have been founded on ignorance of actual details, and misconceptions as to the true significance of their point of view. To have contempt give way to admiration, we need only to know the realities even in such meagre details as can be given in a short manual of this kind. The thousand years of the Middle Ages are now seen to have been full of interesting and successful efforts in every mode of human activity, and medicine and surgery shared in this to the full.